“Birmingham isn’t a big city at peak times”: How poor public transport explains the UK’s productivity puzzle

A bus, in Birmingham. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

For a year now, the Open Data Institute Leeds has been tracking most of the buses and trams in the West Midlands, the UK city region centred on Birmingham. We do it by polling the live departure screens that you see at bus stops, even at stops where they aren’t installed.

So far we’ve recorded 40m bus departures, a total of 16GB of data. And we’ve written tools to explore it in seconds.

You can try for yourself here. You can see how long every bus took to connect any two bus stops anywhere in The West Midlands, and calculate averages over tens of thousands of bus journeys at specific times, to see how bus journey times change over the course of a typical day.

But why?

The agglomeration effect

We’ve mostly done this work because of the following graph.

Click to expand.

Many economists argue that larger cities are more productive than smaller cities, and become ever more productive as they grow due to something called “agglomeration benefits”.

There are many other factors that contribute to productivity, but this simple law seems to hold well in economies like the USA, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. For example, Lyon, the second largest city in France, is more productive than Marseille, the third largest city, which is in turn more productive than Lille.

Almost uniquely among large developed countries, this pattern does not hold in the UK. The UK’s large cities see no significant benefit to productivity from size, especially when we exclude the capital.

The result is that our biggest non-capital cities, Manchester and Birmingham, are significantly less productive than almost all similar-sized cities in Europe, and less productive than much smaller cities such as Edinburgh, Oxford, and Bristol.

Public transport and city size

One notable difference between the UK’s large cities and those in similar countries is how little public transport infrastructure they have.

While France’s second, third, and fourth cities have eight Metro lines between them (four in Lyon, two each in Marseille and Lille), the UK’s equivalents have none.

Manchester and Lyon have similar-sized tramway systems, with about 100 stations each; but Marseille (3 lines) and Lille (2 lines) have substantially more than Birmingham (1 line) and Leeds (0 lines).

Is it possible that poor public transport in the UK’s large cities makes their effective size smaller, and thus sacrifices the agglomeration benefits we would expect from their population?

Our Real Journey Time data lets us ask this question.

Real journey time, and journey time variability

There is an important difference between bus public transport and fixed infrastructure public transport: reliability. I have used our Real Journey Time tool to calculate the worst-case (95th percentile) journey time on public transport on two routes into Birmingham. This is the time that a public transport user must leave for their journey to ensure that they are only late for work or a meeting once a month.

The first journey is a bus from the south of the city, Stirchley to, Birmingham. This 3.5 mile journey takes about 20 minutes between 6am and 7am, and about 40 minutes between 8am and 9am.

The second journey is a tram from West Bromwich to Birmingham. This 8.5 mile journey takes 30 minutes regardless of when it is taken, as the tram route is almost completely segregated from traffic.

Click to expand.

While the tram is substantially quicker at all times than the bus, the reliability of its timing, even during the most congested periods, provides an additional large benefit to users.

We think that people generate the most agglomeration benefits for a city when they travel at peak times, to get to and from work, meetings, and social events. Our tool shows us that, at the times when people need to travel in order to generate these benefits, buses are extremely slow. And since buses are by far the largest mode of public transport in Birmingham, this is likely to have significantly higher impact there than in Lyon; in the latter, the largest mode of public transport is the metro, which delivers reliable journey times no matter the time of day.

Our hypothesis is that Birmingham’s reliance on buses makes its effective population much smaller than its real population. This reduces its productivity by sacrificing agglomeration benefits. For the past six months, using our Real Journey Time tool, we’ve worked with The Productivity Insights Network to quantify that.


At peak times, Birmingham is a small city

The technique is quite simple. We pick 30 minutes as the travel time by bus that marks the boundary of the Birmingham agglomeration. This doesn’t include walking at either end of a journey, or waiting time, so this figure may well mean a 50 minute total journey.

We then use our real journey time to examine how far from central Birmingham that allowed journey time would let a person live.

For example, by examining six months of journeys on the buses, we calculate that, at off-peak times a person five miles from Birmingham in West Bromwich is part of the Birmingham agglomeration. At peak times, this is no longer the case and the outer boundary of the Birmingham agglomeration is reduced in size to just 3.5 miles away in Smethwick.

Making use of our data on trams, we can also imagine a Birmingham where major bus routes are replaced by trams and enjoy fast and reliable journey durations, even at peak times. The agglomeration then includes people as far away as Bilston, 9 miles away.

By repeating this process for bus route into Birmingham from every direction, we create a boundary of the effective size of Birmingham at different times of the day. By summing the population living within each boundary, we calculate the real size of Birmingham under three conditions: by bus at peak time, by bus at off-peak time, and in an imaginary future where all buses travelled as quickly and reliably as trams (simulated tram).

At this point you might see why we picked 30 minutes as our travel time. Allowing 30 minutes of travel time using fixed infrastructure such as a tram gives Birmingham a population of about 1.7 million people, which is very close to its population as defined by the OECD of about 1.9 million.

But at peak time Birmingham’s effective population is just 0.9m – less than half the population that the OECD use.

Birmingham’s effective size might explain most of its productivity gap

This is where things get very interesting. If we consider that Birmingham has a population of 1.9m, and we assume that agglomeration benefits should work in the UK to the same extent that they work in France, Birmingham has a 33 per cent productivity shortfall. This underperformance of the UK’s large cities is part of the productivity puzzle that UK economists have been desperately trying to solve.

But once you understand that Birmingham’s real size is much smaller, below 1m people, the productivity shortfall reduces to just 9 per cent and is no longer significant.

Click to expand.

Our hypothesis is that, by relying on buses that get caught in congestion at peak times for public transport, Birmingham sacrifices significant size and thus agglomeration benefits to cities like Lyon, which rely on trams and metros. This is based on our calculations that a whole-city tramway system for Birmingham would deliver an effective size roughly equal to the OECD-defined population.

This difference seems to explain a significant proportion of the productivity gap between UK large cities and their European equivalents.

So what should we do?

The good news is that Birmingham’s current plans for transport investment are aimed at increasing its effective size at peak times.

  • Using our Real Journey Time tool, TfWM are targeting investment in bus lanes and bus priority measures to improve journey speed and journey reliability on existing bus routes.
  • Seven sprint bus routes are being planned, with bus priority measures hopefully delivering journey time reliability similar to a tram.
  • Two tram extensions (to Wolverhampton Train station and Edgbaston) are under construction, with two more (to Dudley and Birmingham Airport) under study.
  • Station re-openings at places like Moseley and Kings Heath will offer reliable journeys by rail to new areas of the city.

The prize for achieving this is large. If bus journey times became as reliable at peak time as they are off peak, the effective population of Birmingham would increase from 0.9m to 1.3m. If we assume that agglomeration benefits in the UK are as significant as in France, this would lead to an increase in GDP/capita of 7 per cent.

Tom Forth is head of data at the Open Data Institute Leeds. This work was undertaken with Daniel Billingsley and Neil McClure.

 

 
 
 
 

Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.


Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.